A Steven Spielberg movie, made in the 1970s, about an unstoppable force and the regular American guy trying to stop it—no, we’re not talking about Jaws. In 1971, the legendary director was just a twenty-something directing TV shows and looking to break out with his first movie gig. He eventually found it in the TV movie Duel, about an anonymous truck driver stalking a hapless businessman driving around the lonely canyon roads of California.
Duel, which is filled with thrills and road rage, was the precursor to Jaws and effectively launched Spielberg’s career. Here are some things you might not know about the Golden Globe-nominated thriller.
1. THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.
Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson based his original novella, which first appeared in the April 1971 issue of Playboy, on an actual road rage incident. Matheson had played a round of golf on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his car ride home, and in a daze after receiving the terrible news, he was ruthlessly tailgated by a truck driver.
Matheson initially pitched the idea to TV producers but, after it was rejected numerous times, he decided to put his real-life incident into prose form. In order to gather details of the open road, Matheson set out from his home in Ventura, California with a voice recorder in hand and simply described what he saw. Those descriptions of the desolate landscape ended up in the novella.
2. IT WAS STEVEN SPIELBERG’S SECRETARY WHO DISCOVERED RICHARD MATHESON'S STORY.
Spielberg got his start directing for TV at the age of 21, helming episodes of such shows as Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. But the aspiring filmmaker was desperately searching for a property he could turn into a feature film. It was Spielberg's secretary, Nona Tyson, who found Matheson’s story in Playboy and first sent it to her boss to potentially adapt into a movie.
“I started laughing because she's giving me a Playboy to read, and she said, 'Don't look at the girls, read the short story. It is right up your alley,'” Spielberg said. “She had a real intuition about me, and not since my own mom had anybody really had my number. She really understood my tastes, and my ambition, and my fear, my anxiety about wanting to do everything by Thursday morning.”
Tyson helped track down whether the movie rights to Matheson’s story had been optioned, and eventually discovered that a teleplay was in development at ABC and Universal with producer George Eckstein. Spielberg took a meeting with Eckstein, and brought a rough cut of his legendary 73-minute series premiere episode of Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” Eckstein was impressed, and gave Spielberg the job to direct Duel after a follow-up meeting where the filmmaker laid out how he envisioned the film from Matheson’s screenplay in full.
3. DENNIS WEAVER’S WORK WITH ORSON WELLES GOT HIM THE LEAD IN DUEL.
For the lowly protagonist, David Mann, Spielberg hand-picked character actor Dennis Weaver because he loved his performance as the jittery and feeble hotel night manager in Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil.
Weaver drove more than 2000 miles while shooting his scenes, and did many of the stunts himself, including the dangerous phone booth scene at the "Snakerama" gas station in a single take.
Of working with the rookie director, the veteran Weaver later said, “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to judge him because of his age. Let’s see what he does.’ And he did extremely well ... I really think it’s one of the most creative jobs he’s ever done.”
4. THERE WAS A CASTING CALL FOR THE TRUCK.
Matheson's script stated that the villainous, unnamed truck driver would never be seen besides the insert shots of his arms and boots. (Weirdly enough, Matheson’s novella actually names the driver: “Keller,” Matheson’s own spin on the word killer.)
Since the truck itself is the movie’s main antagonist, Spielberg chose to cast it like he would any other actor: an in-person audition. The filmmaker auditioned seven different styles of semi-trucks on the Universal backlot, finally settling on a 1955 Peterbilt 281 because he felt that the split windshield, rounded lights, and elongated hood represented the menacing features of the truck’s “face.”
For Mann’s car, Spielberg chose the relatively small red Plymouth Valiant to stand out in size and color from the enormous truck and the earth tones of the California landscape.
5. CAREFUL PLANNING AND LOW-BUDGET CAMERA TRICKERY HELPED CAPTURE THE HIGH-SPEED CHASES.
Spielberg was given just $400,000 and 10 days to shoot Duel, but the schedule ballooned into a full 13 days to shoot the entire movie after the rookie director fell behind. To save time in shooting the high-speed chases on location in California's Soledad Canyon, Spielberg strategically set up multiple cameras along a single stretch of road to capture the shots needed for multiple scenes in one take. He had the camera turned 180 degrees and the cars driven in the opposite direction to get multiple shots for additional scenes.
Instead of creating individual storyboards, Spielberg mapped out the entire path of Mann and the truck driver on a mural of drafting paper with notes about each plot point peppering the sheet.
6. A FEW VERY FAMOUS CAR MOVIES MADE DUEL POSSIBLE.
To capture the truck and the car at seemingly high speeds, Spielberg shot each at low angles. To create those harrowing shots, Spielberg borrowed the specially-made camera car from the 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, which could lower the camera to only 6 inches off the ground.
Spielberg also enlisted 50-year stunt veteran Carey Loftin as his stunt coordinator. Loftin, who played the driver, also designed the legendary car chase sequences in Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and The French Connection.
7. SPIELBERG ONLY HAD ONE SHOT AT THE CLIFF CRASH.
Spielberg only had one take to pull off the climactic cliff crash because the initial shoot only had a single truck at their disposal. (A backup truck was built during reshoots in case the engine of the main truck stopped working. The backup truck is now owned by classic car restorer Brad Wike, who is based in North Carolina.)
Loftin rigged the truck with a dead clutch so the 18-wheeler could drive without anyone behind the wheel. Spielberg filmed the crash with seven cameras from multiple angles to be able to use some editing tricks to stretch out the scene.
As the truck rams the car over the cliff and falls off in the final film, there is a low roar sound effect that the filmmaker included to emphasize the death of the truck. Spielberg, who wanted the truck to seem Godzilla-like, took the effect from the creature’s roar from the 1954 Universal monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon, and would go on to reuse the effect for the death of the great white shark in Jaws.
8. SPIELBERG HAD TO FIGHT TO NOT BLOW UP THE TRUCK.
Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the word “flammable” scrawled across the back of the truck, yet when it careens off the cliff at the end of the movie it doesn’t go boom. The studio wanted a big explosion, but the director wanted a slower demise for his film’s villain.
In an interview with filmmaker Edgar Wright, Spielberg explained, “[Producer] George Eckstein told me after the network saw it, ‘Well, we’re going back to the desert, they want to push the truck off the cliff again and blow it up again.' I told George why that was such a terrible idea. I’d worked so hard to give the truck a long and painful death and I thought that’s what the audience wanted out of the resolution. I said, ‘If the network does force you to blow the truck up again, you get another director to do it because I’m not going to do it.' George fought for me, and for himself because he agreed with me.”
9. SPIELBERG ADDED SCENES TO GET TO THE BIG SCREEN.
The movie debuted on November 13, 1971 as ABC’s Movie of the Week, and proved to be so successful that Spielberg was given the opportunity to shoot additional footage (the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene) to be able to release it in theaters at feature length.
10. SPIELBERG HAS REVISITED DUEL MORE THAN ONCE—AND PEOPLE HAVE STOLEN FROM HIM, TOO.
Duel was something of lucky charm once Spielberg’s career began to take off, and he’d continually reference parts of the movie in subsequent films.
The Snakerama gas station seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's 1979 World War II comedy, 1941, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The two elderly people Weaver tries to flag down in a car also appear as helpless motorists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But it wasn’t all good luck. Spielberg was not happy when stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break." The recycled footage was completely legal since the show was also produced by Universal.
Duel Blu-ray Special Features